Last summer, I sat down next to a young man who was reading a Russian novel on the train in Berlin. We started to talk. Vladimir told me he was desperate. He had recently fled Russia because of fear for his safety. He is gay and his neighbors had threatened to beat him up because of his sexual orientation. They said he was “not normal” and the government needed to protect Russian children against the negative influence of homosexuality.
His neighbors appeared to be taking their cue from the federal law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” the anti-gay propaganda law that came into effect in 2013. Although the law relates to spreading positive public expressions about homosexuality in the presence of children, many take away a message that homosexual people prey on children and do not belong in society.
Vladimir was frightened. He would quietly close the door of his sixth-floor apartment when he left and take the stairs in order to avoid his neighbors. One day, Vladimir was attacked by a group of hooligans in the subway station close to his Moscow apartment. They shouted he was a “faggot,” kicked him, and slapped him in the face until his nose bled. There were many people in the station but no one came to his rescue.
“Did you go to the police?” I asked him. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t trust them. They won’t protect me, they hate gays.”
Several days after the attack he left Russia and arrived in Berlin. When he claimed asylum based on his sexual orientation, the German authorities asked for proof that he was attacked because he was gay, but Vladimir does not have documents he can submit that testify to his being a victim of homophobic attacks. He told me he is worried the German authorities will find his claim not credible and will send him back to Russia.
I was reminded of this chance encounter on December 2 when the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) published a landmark ruling that bears directly on the experience of people like Vladimir. The CJEU was asked by Dutch judges for a preliminary ruling on the limits regarding the verification of an asylum seeker’s claim to be homosexual.
The CJEU ruled that statements made by an asylum seeker are the starting point of the assessment whether refugee status should be granted and these statements may require confirmation. However, not only should a claim not be rejected because the asylum claimant refuses to answer questions about stereotyped notions of homosexuality, but they should not be asked in the first place. Nor can officials ask detailed questions about the asylum seeker’s sexual practices. So-called tests to prove one’s homosexuality or accepting “evidence” on film of homosexual acts are prohibited. The CJEU underscored that such practices infringe human dignity and the right to privacy protected under EU law. It also ruled that a late disclosure of an asylum seeker’s sexual orientation during the procedure does not affect his credibility.
All EU officials who interview homosexual asylum seekers are required to abide by the standards the CJEU has set in this ruling so people like Vladimir will hopefully be able to start a new life in dignity.